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communication is a skill to be worked at



commentary • 06.04.17

I feel like a lone voice complaining about the move from talk to text. I'm referring to the emergent custom of choosing to communicate by typing sentences onto a computer screen. Whether it's emails, text messages or so called social media and the likes it strikes me as anti-social, yet seemingly preferred to the far more personable practice of actual speaking. A phone call might be rather remote too but at least it’s a live exchange subject to spontaneous engagement.

I think the move is backward because the written word is a limited form of communication. For starters most people are no good at it. The majority don’t convey themselves well in text. Those otherwise cordial often come over charmless and annoying in an email. Even for mundane stuff like making appointments it is more efficient to call someone. I can do in a two minute conversation what might take six emails back and forth spread across an entire morning, sometimes even several days. For business and corporate life that’s perhaps adequate but in many other situations important nuances are lost without talk.

Not being troubled about the diminished value of cyber correspondence is an indication or how inept we are at communicating. I became aware of this early in adult life. I learned that you really have to think about putting your meaning across for the avoidance of doubt. Initially I thought it was my own deficiency at play and although that was true it was more than that. It was that communication is a skill needing to be worked at. Unless you deliberately obfuscate, as some do, it helps to be precise and unambiguous, to be aware if what you said was picked up, of how it went over; did they understand, did they approve?

With text over talk these things are made even more difficult than they already are. With text over talk you don’t know if the recipient got what was sent and read it, let alone how it went down and if or when they might reply. I’ve found genuine emails lost in the junk months after the event and the sender hadn’t bothered to call to see why I didn’t reply. Obviously it couldn’t have been that important.

It’s a bizarre circumstance that has led in less than a generation to the substitution of actual conversations with virtual ones. And I don't like it. When choosing to contact this way, the other person is rendered something of an abstraction. This in Martin Buber’s terms is a violation of the “I-Thou” - i.e. the other is made more thing than person. In contemporary terms it is as if they are in virtual reality, no longer flesh and blood but disembodied entities in a remote space.

Talking to people without actually having to is dubious mainly because humans, like it or not, are animals physical at root, the product of millions of years of evolved person-to-person existence. What might be called “virtuality” is the ability to communicate in the abstract, using the mind to map words and numbers on to experience. This emerged as a spoken activity then slowly advanced to writing. Going from the actual to the virtual in this way has been enormously successful for us and is now essential to our mental apparatus.

But more recently a very ancient form of connection, social life, has been virtualised too. Much of that increasingly takes place online now with writing. Until not so long ago writing was a semi-formal activity, mostly for business, for public documents, in newspapers, books and the like. The personal letter, which has been as good as abandoned, had a special quality. It was an institution with its own set of conventions: the cultivated and considered use of language, the salutations, the putting of pen to often carefully chosen paper, the matching envelope and stamp affixed, the walking to the post box where someone picked it up and took it across the world if necessary to put through a door. Though also a type of virtuality it was a very analogue process and as such more historically human compared to the new digital method with its binary code and lack of physicality.

My lone-voice feeling is due to not hearing about others similarly disgruntled. Possibly the reason is that the virtual and the actual are invariably blurred where we tend not to be aware that when words are used we are abstracting, that a conversion is happening in the psyche. Using language we take something concrete and turn it into something etherial. These disparate entities have become psychologically merged through education and conditioning close to a kind of brainwashing. The benefits are vast but something essential is lost in the process.

So I say this to people: think about what mode is appropriate in what circumstance, when to write and when to speak. Public life aside, broadly it's about information versus conversation. Texts and emails, sending chunks of information digitally are fine in their place, but there are many things that need conversation and conversations should be spoken when possible.

Jung suggested we had become too left-brained and linguistic and as a result somewhat detached from our base. Dispensing with face to face in favour of the written word adds to that substantially. He would’ve thought the consequences far reaching. As a tech-positive person I believe invention is one of the blessings of civilisation if applied intelligently but the large scale conversion of social life to computer screens is pathological, at the very least a questionable use of a promising technology. I can only assume with time the mis-step will correct itself, hopefully sooner rather than later.